Preserving a great art

The Minnesota Orchestra is facing a lockout amidst a changing music industry.

by Derek Olson

The latest players to be locked out are neither athletes nor referees; they are the musicians who play in the Minnesota Orchestra. One week ago their contract expired after the union unanimously voted down a proposal to cut salaries by 30 to 50 percent.

This is no doubt troubling for the fans of the Twin Cities’ vibrant artistic community. Management’s proposal to cut the musicians’ average salary from $135,000 a year to $89,000 would drop the MO from the 8th highest paid U.S. orchestra to the 18th. These are some of the best musicians in the world who could seek higher-paying positions elsewhere. Nearly every musician in the orchestra is a winner of international awards and competitions and holds degrees from the world’s top music schools. More than one quarter studied at the Julliard School and/or the Curtis Institute of Music. Those institutions have the two lowest acceptance rates of all colleges in the U.S.

The Minnesota Orchestra is not alone in its fiscal difficulties. Just across the river, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is also struggling through labor negotiations with proposed cuts of 15 percent and a decrease in the number of full-time musicians from 34 to 28. The Atlanta Symphony spent three weeks locked out. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike. The Detroit Symphony spent all of last year on strike, and just more than a year ago the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy. Arising from these fiscal troubles is a common question: What is the value of a world-class orchestra?

The experience of an orchestra concert differs from a typical mainstream rock, pop or rap concert in many ways. In Orchestra Hall, one is expected to remain silent and listen, leaving all applause until the end of the piece. It’s often 30-40 minutes before audience members have a chance to applaud. Classical music concerts have received ample criticism for the lack of audience involvement in this performance format but consider the purpose.

In a quiet concert hall, audience members may be easily distracted by extraneous noise while trying to listen to the orchestra. It’s all about hearing the music. There are no flashing lights, the musicians do not jump around on stage while they play, there is no destroying of instruments, throwing of beach balls, flag waving, pyrotechnics, fog machines or confetti. There is only music.

What if your favorite mainstream group performed in such a way? Would you still enjoy it if they performed while sitting in chairs for two hours? An extravagant visual spectacle may be appropriate and add to the experience of a concert, but it also diverts your attention away from the music. If you read reviews of popular concerts, you will see little about the actual performance of the musicians. Instead they focus their critique on the excitement, energy and fluff that accompanied it. The truth is that the sole focus of popular music concerts is not on the music, it’s on the entire show, of which music is only one part.

Whenever I attend a rock concert, exciting though it may have been, I come home with damaged ear drums that ring for hours. Sometimes I wear ear plugs for safety, but ear plugs dampen and muffle the sound, harming its quality. Shouldn’t a concert be the place we go for the highest quality of music?

A typical music group will spend countless hours in the recording studio to create the perfect sound for their album which they try to replicate in concert. In classical music, the process is completely reversed. An orchestra creates the perfect sound in live performances, with the acoustics of the concert hall and no electronics. They attempt to replicate the perfect, natural sound of a live concert in their recordings. Imperfection comes not from the music but from the inadequacy of technology to capture the human element in the art. I’ve never heard a rock band sound as good live as they do on their recording, and I’ve never heard an orchestra sound as good on their recording as they do live.

When you go to the museum to see paintings and sculptures, they are not accompanied by pyrotechnics and strobe lights. The art stands by itself. The same should be true of music. If live music cannot stand alone as art, then the music is not really what brings us to the concert.

I believe music serves many purposes integral to many art forms and other functions of life. It has been said, however, that music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist. Few groups follow the performance format of classical music, completely acoustic, no electronics, no dramatic visual, focused on the music and almost nothing else.

Music is unlike the visual arts in that it is fleeting and exists only in a moment. We cannot hang a Beethoven symphony on the wall of a museum for posterity. Because no recording technology yet available can truly capture the nuance of an orchestra, maintaining the quality of the Minnesota Orchestra is like preserving a Monet painting. Beethoven, Brahms and the great composers live on the stage not in the MP3.

I not only ask my fellow Minnesotans how much they value a world-class orchestra. I ask how valuable is the preservation of centuries of great western art, and how valuable is music itself, sans spectacle, as a standalone art.